There’s a lot of confusion about what it means to eat healthy. Casually poll a group of friends and you’re sure to come back with conflicting opinions about carbs, healthy fats, dairy, natural sugars…you name it. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines were created in 1980 (and are updated every five years), as a way to cut down on some of that confusion, and offer national nutritional guidance based on input from experts and a review of the most recent research. Those recommendations are a BFD—they shape the advice that doctors and dietitians give their patients, impact product formulations, and affect the food that is served in schools and on military bases.
But here’s something mind-blowing: There actually are no official standard dietary guidelines for pregnant or lactating women, stages of life when nutrient needs are definitely different. But that’s about to change with the latest update, which are due to be finalized this year. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which creates the Dietary Guidelines, created a specific subcommittee to create a nutrition bluebook specifically for this category of people who had previously been excluded from past guidelines.
“Although it’s important to recognize that each woman’s health and dietary goals are uniquely different throughout their lifespan, these [future] guidelines are a launching pad for a bigger discussion around health and nutrition for these population groups,” says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, a registered dietitian, author of The Better Period Food Solution, and advisory board member of Robyn, a company whose mission is to provide guidance and support across all paths to parenthood. “The recommendations would be the stepping stone for a bigger discussion and further education for pregnant and lactating women to learn more about the specific nutrients they need to thrive during two nutritional and life milestones.”
“It’s comparing oranges to apples as there are way too many discrepancies between the nutrients you would recommend for the average Joe and a pregnant or nursing woman.” —Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD
As a nutrition expert who regularly works with pregnant and lactating women, there are several key ways Beckerman says their needs differ from the average person’s: calories, protein, fiber, iron, calcium, vitamin D, folate, folic acid, potassium, vitamin B6, and magnesium—phew! “Ideally, I would like to see a whole new panel of dietary guidelines for both pregnant and lactating women as their nutrition goals are starkly different than the every day man,” Beckerman says. “I may be getting greedy but I’d particularly love to see three separate guidelines for pregnant women broken into the first, second, and third trimester.” This is because, she says, the nutritional requirements for the aforementioned nutrients change throughout pregnancy and after.
“As far as lactating women, I’d like to see separate recommendations for vitamin A and vitamin D which are both naturally low in breast milk, calcium to preserve mom’s bones and build the newborn’s, and fluids to decrease the risk of dehydration and UTI’s,” Beckerman adds.
“The most important nutrition goals for pregnant and lactating women are to make sure they are getting the necessary calories and vitamins needed to maintain their health as well as the health of their fetus or infant if they are breastfeeding,” adds Temeka Zore, MD, an OB/GYN and fertility specialist at Spring Fertility. But she adds that the recommendations aren’t all to consider: Access to these nutrients is also important.
“In general, individuals of a lower socioeconomic status are less likely to have access to and able to afford healthy foods and vitamins and supplements.” Dr. Zore says. She adds that lower-income and minority women are less likely to initiate prenatal care in the first trimester—which is typically when some of the important conversations about nutrition happen. “More needs to be done in terms of improving prenatal care than just creating guidelines. The most important question needs to be: How do we initiate these guidelines and improve education and compliance with them to really have an impact on pregnancy and postpartum outcomes for women and infants?”
While the official dietary guidelines for pregnant women and lactating women are still TBD, it’s certainly encouraging that they will no longer be lumped together with everyone else, when their nutritional needs aren’t the same. “It’s comparing oranges to apples as there are way too many discrepancies between the nutrients you would recommend for the average Joe and a pregnant or nursing woman,” Beckerman says.
This change is definitely a good one—and hopefully the start of more.
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